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Maternity & Magic: Depictions of the Fairy Godmother

Cinderella or The Little Glass Slipper

Perrault, Charles. Cinderella or The Little Glass Slipper. Illus. Errol Le Cain. London: Puffin Books, 1972.

© 2011, Nira Loganathan, Anna Workman

Have you ever picked up a children’s book and wondered why it was written the way it was, or illustrated in a specific way? It is easy to look past the meanings and representations that are behind these books because their commonly referred to simply as a form of entertainment for children. In fact, there are so many thoughts and ideas that have been put into such a creation, which in turn made a tremendous impact on society both historically as well as the present time.  With the magical transformations incorporated in the tale of Cinderella or the Little Glass Slipper, written by Charles Perrault, readers are engaged with the characters, settings and illustrations Errol Le Cain created in the book. There are many aspects to this well known childhood tale, but one that plays a significant role to the storyline is performed by the fairy godmother of Cinderella. Although the common concept of the Fairy Godmother introduced in Cinderella remains the same, Perrault and Cain’s representation leads the reader into a historical view of more than just simply a character with a magical wand.

The fairy godmother comforting Cinderella.

The Fairy Godmother in Text

The fairy godmother is a crucial character to the ever loving tale of Cinderella. The fact that the fairy godmother has within her a very magical persona brings forth the notion of ‘quick fixes and solutions’ (Jorgenson, Par. 1). Aside from the magical events present in this story, the fairy godmother was represented as the one who knows the needs of the despair. Cinderella or The Little Glass Slipper follows the common outline of telling the story of a young peasant girl who overcomes the all negativity because of the goodness of her heart and the help of her fairy godmother, and lives happily ever after in a castle with her prince charming. The role of her godmother is essential to the conclusion of this tale. Perrault’s texts offer such interesting notions and morals that are quoted by the fairy godmother as the ‘mother’ figure, and Cinderella, as the ‘child’ figure. Coming from a historical perspective, children were to maintain their obedience in order to get something in return. This coincides with Perrault’s text, since Cinderella was to ‘be a good girl’ for the fairy godmother to grant her wish of going to the ball. Along with that example of expectations, in the end of the tale, Cinderella is faced with a curfew that she must abide by so that her beautiful gown would not go back to rags in front of the Prince. The fairy godmother instructed Cinderella to come back home at the hour of midnight, because the magic will wear out afterwards. This notion of curfews is culturally expressed towards children, as a way of showing control by the parent, and/or protection from the evil that lurks during the night time. The fairy godmother contains the most power in this tale which gives her way of using it any how she pleases, whether it is for granting a wish, or to maintain the obedience of Cinderella.

It is important to acknowledge the significance of the fairy godmother’s presence in Cinderella or the Little Glass Slipper. This tale almost suggests that nothing can be done alone, but with the help of someone else or even a spiritual being.  During Perrault’s time, there was much emphasis on Christian values, and seeing that ‘magical’ behaviour exists only within the supernatural world, the fairy godmother might have been represented as a heavenly figure. With all the visual representations that Errol Le Cain placed upon the fairy godmother’s figure, one could agree that she comes off as welcoming, trusting, magical, caring, and so much more. Le Cain did an incredible job differentiating the characters between good and evil. Not only was this done with the characters, but also the setting of each page that was transformed into a world of magical adventures. It is interesting to analyze why the fairy godmother only helped Cinderella and not her sisters. It was quite important to Perrault to emphasize the concept of ‘good conquers evil. This can be broke down to the following, the fairy godmother came to Cinderella’s rescue because of the pure heart she had, and by her pure heart, and she won the goodness of her evil sisters, which in the end helped them live happily ever after too. It is almost to say that, even if there are indirect connections with the fairy godmother, good things will begin to happen, as did for Cinderella’s step sisters. With the aid of illustrations created by Le Cain and text written by Perrault, the role of the fairy godmother in a society is accentuated and represented relatively to the 20th century.

Looking more in depth of the text within Cinderella or the Little Glass Slipper, there are many cues on how the fairy godmother is represented. The very fact that, right in front of Cinderella’s eyes, the fairy godmother magically transformed each object shows her supernatural persona. Perrault uses simple text during the moment where the fairy godmother “touched” the rats to become coachmen, or “lightly tapped” the mice into fine horses (Perrault, Cinderella or the Little Glass Slipper). Such words are associated with the gentleness that the fairy godmother represents. Along with her gentleness, Cain depicts the fairy godmother to be a figure of guidance and protection. When referring to most of the pages in this tale, Cain illustrates the guidance and protection by including the face of the fairy godmother’s face in some unique way. In some pages the reader can locate her face at the very top of corners of the pages, signifying her always watching over Cinderella. This coincides with the notion of mothers always being the figure of looking after their children and guiding them into the path of righteousness. Along with that, the fairy godmother is seen to be of an elder figure which also supports the idea that mothers are very similar (Jorgensen, 220). Figures in the entertainment industry are ever changing and the perceptions of fairies, specifically fairy godmothers, are represented in so many different ways hoping to capture the goodness and righteousness of the upcoming generation that will be exposed to such tales.

The fairy godmother resembling a butterfly.

The Fairy Godmother Illustrated

Errol Le Cain was an exceptional illustrator, known for his ability to produce beautiful images that identified with the writer and their text.  He stated that “No matter how exciting or technically brilliant the illustrators are, if they work against the mood of the story the picture book is a failure.” With this attitude, Le Cain was able to adapt his style according to the tone and setting to work with the prose (Eve, 100).  Le Cain was able to follow the tone of Charles Perrault’s literary version of the Cinderella tale by shifting the spotlight to the fairy godmother, making her a central character (Cullen, 59).  As an illustrator, Le Cain successfully expanded on Perrault’s text with to create a unified storybook.  It is with these illustrations that the storybook becomes a true work of art.  During his career, Le Cain illustrated over fifty books however, since losing his battle to cancer in 1898, few of his works have been available in print (Eve, 86).  This version of Charles Perrault’s Cinderella or The Little Glass Slipper is one his preserved masterpieces.

To understand the influences behind Errol Le Cain’s work, a deeper look must be taken into his past and the development of his unique style.  Le Cain left his birth place of Singapore in the spring of 1942 when it was invaded by the Japanese and moved with his family to Agra, India near Delhi.  Here, he learned English from his grandmother who recited the fairy tales that Le Cain would often draw his own picture books for (Eve 86).  “I remember her telling me the story of Aladdin, and I made a picture book of it.  Someone gave me a copy of Hans Andersen which wasn’t illustrated, so wherever there was a space I’d draw a picture for it of what I saw” (Eve, 86).  When Le Cain and his family returned to Singapore, he lived next door to the Roxy Cinema which played some of the classic Disney films.  Le Cain claimed that these Disney films had a “big influence” on his illustrations (Eve 87).  Not only was Le Cain exposed to a mixture of the old tales told by his grandmother and the modern Disney versions he saw in the cinema, but he also got a taste of both Eastern and Western culture.

In the Cinderella or The Little Glass Slipper, Charles Perrault does not give a physical description of the fairy godmother, only details about her magical powers.  While many English illustrators portray the fairy godmother as a nonthreatening witch (Cullen, 73), Le Cain’s godmother takes on a more naturalistic form.  She is displayed with antennae and adorned in a cloak-like swirl of colour that resembles a butterfly’s wings.  She often appears to blend into the sky itself, as if she is part of the clouds.  This mother nature-esque feel to the fairy godmother is unique but still retains the non-threatening, nurturing aspects of Perrault’s character.  Le Cain’s role as the illustrator is to provide visual information that will support the verbal information written by Perrault (Nodelman, 82) and he does so by putting emphasis on the fairy godmother in his illustrations.  The fairy godmother is the most active character in Perrault’s literary version of the story and as a result, she appears in most of the illustrations even as a lone face watching over Cinderella.  When the fairy godmother appears in full view, she is a whirl of patterns that consume most of the page as she wraps herself like a mother around the distraught, child-like Cinderella.  Le Cain’s fairy godmother appears to be very large compared to the other characters which could symbolize Cinderella’s return to the role of the child while she allows the fairy godmother to take on the maternal role.  He captures the personality of the fairy godmother as a watchful, nurturing mother who is an incarnation of the mother Cinderella lost (Cullen 73).

Le Cain’s illustrations in Cinderella or The Little Glass Slipper and many of his works done at that time feature curves and patterns that resemble the Art Nouveaux style mixed with many Eastern characteristics (Eve, 94).  The illustrations’ varying patterns and colours apply to the changing mood of the story as Cinderella transforms from the oppressed step-daughter to the adored princess.  The decadent atmosphere created by Le Cain’s use of ornate borders, patterns, and sharp lines give specific features of the illustrations a grave or menacing feel (Nodelman, 82).  This displays a contrast between the light and dark elements of the story.  Le Cain’s fairy godmother and step-mother have many similar features but still appear to be opposites.  Both mother figures are disproportioned and have elongated features as well as almost identical facial designs and large garments that expose only their faces and hands.  The fairy godmother however, sports an elongated nose that makes her appear almost comical, while the step-mother has an elongated chin that causes her to appear more sinister.  The fairy godmother also appears in an array of colours and patterns unlike the step-mother, who is dressed almost entirely in black with muted patterns.  These two women are clearly represented in Le Cain’s illustrations as the opposing powers of light and dark or good and evil in Cinderella’s life.

Happily ever after farewell to the fairy godmother.

Errol Le Cain described himself as an artist who saw the illustrated page of a book as merely a piece of the artistic whole (Eve, 92).  Charles Perrault’s version of this classic tale, Cinderella or The Little Glass Slipper, is paired with Le Cain’s ornate illustrations to create an elegant but whimsical work of art.  The use of rich colours and fine detail in the illustrations make this storybook enjoyable to both children and the adults who remember the tale of Cinderella from their own childhoods.  Le Cain’s fairy godmother becomes a mother nature-like character as she and acts as the comforting rescuer and protector of the abused Cinderella.  Despite its modern appearance, this version of Perrault’s Cinderella or The Little Glass Slipper manages to maintain the lavish feel of the setting as well as the warm maternal nature of the fairy godmother through the distinct and imaginative illustrations produced for the text.

Select Bibliography

Cullen, Bonnie. “For Whom the Shoe Fits: Cinderella in the Hands of Victorian Writers and Illustrators.” The Lion and the Unicorn, 27.1 (2003): 57-82.

Eve, Mathew. “Errol Le Cain: The very Best Aspects of Book Illustration” Children’s Literature in Education 30.2 (1999) : 85-102

Jeana Jorgensen. “A Wave of the Magic Wand: Fairy Godmothers in Contemporary American Media.” Marvels & Tales 21.2 (2007): 216-227. Project MUSE. Web. 21 Jan. 2011.

Nodelman, Perry. Word’s about Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children’s Picture Books. University of Georgia Press, 1988.